The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom. But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.

For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment. Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe.

But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.

Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money.

Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems - and extra costs - arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.

According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.

Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders.

That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.

South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday.

Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns.

The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation. That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains.

South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.

The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision.

Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers.

Of course, expanded parole for aging prisoners would require special oversight to ensure that they are able to live on their own. Establishing support networks and finding gainful employment would likely pose greater challenges for older inmates than their younger counterparts. Some also have serious medical needs that would require regular attention.

Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.